Coercion, Paternalism, and The Common Good

In his recent review of The Once and Future Liberal for The Gospel Coalition, [author and former Obama White House staffer, Michael] Wear (sort of) critiques identity politics, lamenting the fact that “identity politics empowers people to speak for others without their consent.” Yet in the same article he suggests, “We ought to see our fates as inextricably linked with the fate of our neighbors – and act politically on their behalf.”

This gets to the heart of the problem with the Love Your Neighbor strategy. Our allegedly loving act of selflessly voting on behalf of our neighbors is speaking for our neighbors without their consent. It naively assumes that there is an identifiable, agreed-upon common good in our current political environment. This mindset is also highly patronizing towards others by assuming that we have a better understanding of what is best for our neighbors than they do.

We simply do not agree upon what the common good is in America. Acting politically on our neighbors’ behalf is ultimately one tribe’s (or coalition of tribe’s) vision of the common good versus another’s, carried out by means of the coercive power of the State. Whoever can garner 50.1% of the vote gets to coerce the other 49.9% into abiding by the other tribe’s vision of the common good whether the 49.9% of our neighbors believe it to actually be “good” or not. Even if our neighbor abhors the “good” we have forced upon them through our loving act of voting for their good, they’ll just have to live with it and accept it as the blessing from God we believe it to be.

Practically speaking, what does it even look like to vote for the good of the community motivated by love rather than individualistic self-interest anyway? Would the loving thing be to take a poll and vote with the majority of our community even if it were to compromise our sincerely held beliefs? Or do we go against the majority of the community because we know what they desire will actually harm them? The “community” calls that hate.


A (Usually) Virtuous People

In today’s WSJ, the Editorial Board observes that Alabama’s Judge Roy Moore’s defeat yesterday in his campaign for a seat in the US Senate that is

… a lesson to the Republican Party, and President Trump, that many GOP voters are still at heart character voters. They will only accept so much misbehavior in a politician, no matter the policy stakes. Mr. Trump opposed Mr. Moore in the primary but came around to support him even after the accusations emerged about Mr. Moore’s pursuit of teenage girls while he was in his 30s. The GOP voters who ignored Mr. Trump and rejected Mr. Moore also want a President who acts presidential.

While Americans often fail to live up to our ideals, we are (for the most part) a people who strive to be virtuous.

As it does in the individual, our national commitment to virtue waxes and wanes. Both parties have in recent years put forward candidates with serious moral shortcomings.

These moral deficiencies are reflected not only in policies that are contrary to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” As we saw in the recent US Presidential campaign, our candidates also can be seriously morally flawed.  More than one person told me that when they voted in the 2016 election they voted not for the “best candidate” but for the “lesser of two evils.”

Yes, democracy isn’t a perfect form of government but in this life, what form of government is? St Augustine is instructive here:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor” (City of God, Book IV.4).

Americans have always understood that–absent virtue in ourselves and in our politicians–democracy will become tyrannical.

With this in mind, I see Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama as a hopeful sign that Americans are coming to realize that a just government requires that we elect virtuous men and women to office. It isn’t enough that we choose those who pass laws that conform to the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” Much less should we simply pick leaders who agree with us.

We must elect men and women of good–and ideally, sterling–moral character. Whether guilty or not of things of which he stands accused, Moore’s behavior over the years was such that these allegations were enough to turn the election.

Make no mistake. The allegations were damaging to his campaign not because the women were credible (though I think they were). No, the allegations were credible and so harmful because, in the minds of many voters, Moore’s character was already in question.

As I said above, though far from perfect. Americans are usually a virtuous people. God willing, we have reached (or at least reaching) a tipping point. Hopefully, we have reached the point where Americans will no longer feel compelled to vote for the “lesser of two evils.”

Yes, for a time this might mean that truly evil people are elected and that truly harmful laws are passed. God forbid this happen. But if it does, it is because the two major parties will continue to nominate candidates with serious personal moral shortcomings.

No, when we enter a voting booth we aren’t choosing a pastor. To argue based on this that character doesn’t matter or that policy matters more, is simply wrongheaded. We must elect morally good men and women to hold political office. If we don’t, then even good and just laws will prove to be insufficient. When we entrust good laws to the care of bad leaders show we are worse than slaves; we are fools.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Evangelizing the “Aspirational Class”

Benjamin Schwarz in his review of The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett  writes that the author describes

…the process of “assortative mating” and elite bunching that Murray previously elucidated, Currid-Halkett explains that “smart people want to be around other smart people…over time that results in highly stratified hyper-educated affluent places.”

The practical social result of this Schwarx says is a growing “cultural divide” in which cities like “London, central Paris, the westside of Los Angeles, the northside of Chicago, Manhattan, Seattle, Northwest D.C., Toronto, and San Francisco” are becoming “increasingly … culturally homogenous echo-chambers” that “resemble each other more than they do their outlying districts and suburbs.”

Given the socially progressive, and frankly anti-free market sentiment (and it is rarely anything more than sentimental), these cities are dependent economically on the “engines of global capitalism.” The wealth generated by the market  (and the business and entrepreneurs who the cultural elites often disparage) enable “these cities and their inhabitants” to pull “away with growing momentum from their native countries and cultures.”

As a result, these cities (which include Madison, WI where I live) are

Untethered from their localities, [and] are being transformed into an archipelago of analogous islands. Currid-Halkett is surely right that this process represents a divide between (to somewhat simplify matters) the cosmopolitans and the provincials, but it is hardly an equal struggle. The wealth, dynamism, and consequent self-belief are all on one side; the unorganized, self-defeating resentment is all on the other. The cosmopolitan elite will shape the world as that elite wishes, even if the results ultimately prove disastrous to all.

Historically, the Church–East and West–has often drawn her leadership from the cultural elite. Whether raised to the episcopate, set aside as presbyters, or asked to open their homes for the celebration of the sacraments, the wealthy and socially powerful members of the Church didn’t serve an abstract “common good.” Rather they respond to Christ and the Church’s invitation to offer tangible and immediate service to the whole Church but especially to the poor.

For the Christian tradition, those in the social elite have a moral obligation to serve others.  And again, to do so concretely and personally. (In the interest of full-disclosure, I have PhD and my wife a JD, so, yeah, I’m look at us too.)

Unfortunately, Schwarz point out, the “aspiration class” (Currid-Halkett’s term for the social elite) share a “social and political outlook based on self-fulfillment” that “easily lapses into self-indulgence.” Again, I know this from my own experience. The temptation to self-satisfacation is a real one for me.

One of the reasons I am attracted to college campus ministry, is because the Orthodox Church has largely left the university (and especially the secular university) to its own devices. Doing so, however, means that our brightest young people are being formed morally according to the ideals of the aspirational class and not the Gospel.

Thank God for those Orthodox Christians who are well-educated, wealthy and socially powerful! It’s from this group in the Church that God will raise up for our age the new St John Chrysostom, St Basil the Great, St Augustine, St Ambrose, St Helene, St Nina, St Macrina, St Maria of Paris and other leaders (men and women) the Church needs.

But, if we don’t evangelize those Orthodox Christians in the “aspiration class” (to say those who haven’t heard the Gospel), what then? How can I stand before Christ at the Last Judgment and say I failed to answer affirmatively when He called me to help raise up the new fathers and mothers for this age?

In Christ

+Fr Gregory

For Consideration

Millions of working age American men don’t have a job and aren’t looking for one. They’ve simply vanished from the U.S. labor force. What are they doing? Caring for kids? Going to school?

The answers will surprise you. Tyler Cowen explores this phenomenon and what it could mean for the American economy in episode 4 of the new series that accompanies his latest book, The Complacent Class.

The New Era of Segregation

Why is this happening? For answers, check out Economist Tyler Cowen in his  new video titled “The New Era of Segregation,” argues that,

In our algorithm-driven world, digital servants cater to our individual preferences like never before – finding us tailored restaurants, TV shows, even our next spouse. On the individual level, this is all very good. We’re finding better matches and our daily lives are improving.

But what happens at the macro level? The picture becomes less rosy – increased segregation, exploding rents, and a less dynamic economy.

While economic concerns are important–after all, how can the Church serve the poor (much less help lift them out of poverty!) with the economic resources to do so?

But Cowen’s video raises another, pastoral question.

In an increasingly “curated” culture, what happens to the Church? What happens to the parish as a local, eucharistic community?

With Cowen, I think the technological advances of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are great. No question about this!

In a fallen world, no good thing is simply good. Sin always mixes in.

As Christians, as people of good will, and as citizens we can’t lose sight of either the blessings or risk inherent in technology. As Aristotle taught us, virtue is about finding the middle way between extremes. This is as true with our use of technology as it is in our personal lives.

Do take a moment to watch Cowen’s video.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


Orthodoxy in the Marketplace: A Team Sport

A Team Sport

The psychological research on moral formation provides an interesting insight on this data. Jonathan Haidt argues that we develop our moral framework through, among other things, shared physical activity. Or, as he says, religion is a “team sport.” This means that

trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball. You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.

While theology matters, it isn’t the whole of religious faith. “Believing, doing, and belonging are three complementary yet distinct aspects” of what it means to be a religious believer. It is “beliefs and practices” together that “create a community.” [1]  This is why believers, of any tradition, who don’t participate regularly in their tradition’s worship, tend to take their moral cues not from their own religious tradition but from some other source. In America, that source is typically the surrounding secular culture.[2]

If Haidt is correct then given the relatively low participation rate of Orthodox Christians in weekly worship we should expect to see a lack of theological orthodoxy that corresponds with a relatively low rate of moral orthopraxis. And, in fact, we do.

While there are no doubt many factors that contribute to these numbers, when asked about their understanding of God, Orthodox Christians prove themselves to be rather less than orthodox (much less, Orthodox). 32% think of God as an “impersonal force.” Another 6% say they believe in a god that may, or may not, be personal; an equal number don’t know what they believe about God. Atheists make up 4% of those who still call themselves Orthodox. Finally, 1% have some “other” notion of God than those offered in the PEW study.[3]

In other words, about half the Orthodox Christians in America, don’t believe in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Without prejudice to divine grace, this means that about half of all Orthodox Christians are predisposed to NOT experience God’s love for them. The god in which they believe is, at best, an impersonal force. And when asked if they are certain that personal relationship with God is even possible only 47% of American Orthodox Christians said yes—which isn’t to say they have a personal, much less loving, relationship with the Holy Trinity, only that they were certain such a relationship is possible.

Demographically, morally and spiritually, Orthodox Christians in America have taken a beating. That other Christian and non-Christian traditions are in similar situations is, at best, cold comfort. The condition of Orthodoxy in America raises a practical question. What is the Church to do? How are we to respond to the corrosive effects of the religious free market? And, since we’re asking hard questions, can we really lay the blame on the marketplace of ideas or might it be as well that Orthodox Christians have failed to use the freedoms America has afforded the Church?

As a first step in our working together to answer these question, let’s look at two different strategies for facing the challenge inherent in the free market of ideas: Withdrawal and Competition.

[1] Haidt, Jonathan, Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (p. 290). New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, p. 209.

[2] Pew Religious Landscape Survey: Practices and Social Attitude.


Orthodoxy in the Marketplace: Religion in General

Religion in General but Not In Particular

The Church finding herself in the midst of a free marketplace of ideas. Given the range of options available to people, it isn’t surprising that, like other Christian communities, the Orthodox Church has in recent years suffered significant, numerical losses. Thinking about why the Orthodox Church has lost so many of our faithful (both those baptized in infancy and those who joined the Church as adults), I am reminded of a conversation I’ve had several times with different priests and parish councils that were trying to establish a professional stewardship program. The conversation would begin with the kind of thought experiment economists love.

Let’s imagine, I’d begin, someone who has $50 and two free hours on Sunday morning. Why would that person want to spend those two hours at Liturgy in your parish and put his money in the basket rather than use his resources to go to brunch with his wife?

Pretty consistently, my question was met with incomprehension (and occasionally irritation). Probing a bit, it became clear that I was asking the community to do something they had never done before. I was asking them to think why—given all the options available to people—someone would want to participate, and financial support, their parish. Why was their parish the most desirable option for how someone could spend his time and money on Sunday morning?

At best, parish leaders would offer generic reasons for others (and by implication, themselves) to attend and support their community. Again, with just a bit of probing, it became clear that, at best, what people had were reasons why religion in general, was a good thing. What they didn’t have were reasons why people would want to invest in their particular community.

While anecdotal, these conversations illustrate what we see in the data about the self-understanding of American Orthodox Christianity. As we see in other Christian communities, Orthodox Christians seem to be taking guidance for their moral and spiritual life not from the Christian tradition but the larger, secular, culture. This why the parish leaders (both lay and clergy) I spoke with couldn’t think of the unique reasons their community was valuable. Like the larger culture, they spontaneous thinking of religion only in general term. They resist any suggestion that one religion (even their own) might be better than another.[1] Even when asked about their own community—a community in which they had personally invested significant time, treasure and talent—was valuable all they had ready to hand were the generic answers that have to dominate how most Christians in America think about the Gospel and their own community’s contribution to the larger culture.[2]

To see how extensive is “The Triumph of the ‘Cult of Nice’”[3] and come to dominate how Orthodox Christians think about themselves and the world around them, we only need to look at the data.

[1] See, for example, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005 and Kendra Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling Us. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

[2] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, pp. xx-xx.

[3] Dean, Almost Christian, pp. 25-42.

American Orthodox Church by the Numbers

Looking at the data, America has been a social and economic blessing for Orthodox Christians. We are, on average, younger[1] and better educated[2] than most other religious traditions. We are also fairly well-off economically.[3] Finally, Orthodox Christians tend to be racially and ethnically monolithic.[4]

So, Orthodoxy in America is (largely) white, college educated and middle to upper middle-class.

But this doesn’t exhaust the data on the Church in America. Yes, by some metrics, Eastern Orthodox Christians have done well in America. But this isn’t the whole story. Other metrics suggest that not all is well.

While we have more clergy, more parishes/missions and more monasteries,[5] as we’ll see in a moment we have fewer faithful; we have lost both those who were baptized as infants AND those who became Orthodox as adults.For example, in 2007 .6% of the adult population (1,363,271) were baptized in childhood as Orthodox Christians. Unfortunately, 368,083 (or 27% of those baptized in infancy) identified themselves as former Orthodox Christians.

What about converts in 2007?

Well, to the 995,188 adults who were baptized as infants who still identified themselves as practicing Orthodox Christians, were added, 297,264 adults. This means that as of 2007 there were 1,279,452 Orthodox Christians (cradle and convert) in America. But the Church in America still lost almost 1.2 adults for every 1 adult who entered the Church.[6]

The PEW Charitable Trust re-visited the state of religion in America in 2014 and the change in the Church’s situation is dramatic. In 2014, there was a drop in both the percentage and the actual number of adult Orthodox Christians who were baptized in infancy.   As of 2014, .5% of the adult population were baptized in childhood as Orthodox Christians (1,126,541). Of these, 576,474 (or 47% of those baptized in infancy) identified themselves as former Orthodox Christians. So the total number of practicing Orthodox Christian baptized as such as infants dropped to 650,067 for a loss of 222,709 or approximately 25% since 2007.

And converts in 2014?

In absolute numbers, the Church had fewer converts (222,709[7]) in absolute numbers even while converts made up a larger percentage of the total number of practicing Orthodox Christians.[8] In absolute numbers, we seem to have lost 74,555 converts between 2007 and 2014. We also lost slightly more than 2.5 adults baptized as infants for every 1 Orthodox Christian who joined as an adult.

2007 2014 Change Change
Number of adults baptized as infants 1,363,271 1,226,541 -136,730 -10%
Number of adults baptized as infants who have lapsed -381,008 -576,474 +208,391 +56%
Number of adult converts +297,264 +222,709 -74,555 -25%
TOTAL PRACTICING ORTHODOX 1,279,452 872,776 -419,676 -32%

Keep in mind that what we are seeing likely reflects several factors.

  • Historically, the Church in America has done a poor job of gathering census data. We’ve never really had, at least until very recently, anything that approaches accurate data.
  • The dramatic increase in lapsed cradle Orthodox Christians likely reflects not a decrease in active Church members but rather a better count of those who have always been inactive.
  • The drop in the number of converts is frankly sobering. But it reflects the fact that converts will, when the first flush of faith fades, leave the Church even if they don’t (necessarily) leave in as great a percentage of those baptized as infants

The news is sobering in other areas as well.

In 2007, some 758,000 Orthodox Christians (55% of all Orthodox Christians baptized as infants) were born outside the US. But in 2014, 490,616 (40% of all Orthodox Christians in America) were born overseas. This “20% who were born in Europe, 7% who were born in sub-Saharan Africa and 7% who are from the Asia-Pacific region); 23% of Orthodox Christians are the children of immigrants” (Pew, 2015).

Other statistics from 2015, include

  • 36% are third generation (both parents born here)
  • 23% are second generation (at least one parent born overseas)
  • 40% are first generation (born overseas)

Given that over 60% of all Orthodox Christians are either first or second generation, it is hard to see how the Orthodox Church can claim to be an American Church in anything other than the most general of terms. For the foreseeable future, Orthodoxy in America will be an immigrant Church.

[1] With a median age of 40 years old, Orthodox Christians are the youngest Christian tradition in America, see “Which U.S. religious groups are oldest and youngest?” available here, accessed 1/27/17.

[2] Together with Muslims and Buddhists, some 40% of Orthodox Christians in the US have at least a college degree. PEW (2015), p. 55.

[3] While 20% of Orthodox Christians have a total family income of less than $30,00/year, 28% have an annual income above $100,000. 24% make $30,000 to $49,000/year while 29% make between $50,000 and $99,999/year. See “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” p. 58, available online, accessed. 1/27/17.

[4], accessed 1/20/2017. For more on the pastoral and political implications of this, see Georgia Kasamias “Orthodoxy and Race in Light of Trump’s Inauguration,”, accessed 1/20/2017. See as well Albert J. Raboteau, “ Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.” accessed 1/20/2017.

[5] See the research sponsored by the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops in America:, accessed 1/27/17. The practical effect of this is while “liabilities” increase in terms of clergy compensation, mortgages and upkeep for churches and monasteries, “assets” in term of the number of faithful to support financially the Church are diminishing.

[6] Pew US Religious Landscape Survey (2007), available here:, accessed 1/27/17.

[7] It is important to keep in mind that the PEW data tells us the number of Orthodox Christians who self-identify as converts in 2014 and NOT the number of adults who converted to Orthodoxy in that years.

[8] In 2007, PEW reported that 23% of the Church in America were converts. In 2014, that number had jumped to 27% even though the TOTAL number of converts had dropped by approximately 25% (from 297,264 in 07 to 222,709 in 14).

An Orthodox Champion of Civil & Human Rights


Archbishop Iakovos with Dr. Martin Luther King

Archbishop Iakovos marching with Dr. Martin Luther King

Archbishop Iakovos is known in the U.S. as the committed and caring pastor who put the Greek Orthodox Faith on the map for Americans and beyond. He is also known as the first Greek Archbishop in 350 years to officially confer with a pope, leaving behind a tremendous body of work as the primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in North and South America for 37 years.

However, Iakovos was also a champion of civil and human rights who showed his support to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not only with his words, but also with his actions. He was one of the first powerful people to embrace the ideas of Dr. King and march hand in hand with him in 1965 in Selma, Ala.

“He had received threats if he would dare to walk with Dr. King, but he never thought twice of his decision,” says a close aid and friend of the Archbishop.

This historic moment for America was captured on the cover of LIFE Magazine on March 26, 1965.  (The entire magazine is online and can be read here.)

The New York Times reported, “The striking cover of Time magazine that showed Dr. King side by side with the black-garbed Archbishop Iakovos marked a new presence of Greek Americans and the Greek Orthodox church in American life.”

Iakovos vigorously supported the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights legislation, exclaiming when the first bill was passed:


Known throughout the world as a dynamic participant in the contemporary ecumenical movement for Christian Unity, Archbishop Iakovos served for nine years as president of the World Council of Churches, established dialogues with Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Southern Baptists and Black Church leaders and initiated Orthodox Dialogue with Judaism. In a successful effort to promote closer ties among Orthodox jurisdictions, he founded the Standing conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) in 1960. He was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, bestowed by President Jimmy Carter on June 9, 1980.

Iakovos’ decision to support Dr. King, and the publicity his action received, brought Greek-Americans and African-Americans much closer, resulting in a friendship that the two communities celebrate until this day!

Related Video:

The enthronement of Archbishop Iakovos took place on April 1, 1959 at Holy Trinity Cathedral in New York City. He served as Archbishop until 1996 and passed away on April 10, 2005 (at age 93).

Fr. Robert Sirico, Acton Institute, on Pres. Trump’s Prayer Service

Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute was on with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto for coverage of the Prayer Service the day after President Trump’s inauguration. I thought Fr Sirico offered a sound and sober reflection on the day’s event.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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